Deir el Medina (Egypte): Mummies Embalmed With Unusual Recipes

Rossella Lorenzi

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Unusual embalming recipes have been identified on two ancient Egyptian mummies, according to new international research.

Kha merit mummification 670Above shows the digital X-ray imaging process of the mummy of Kha. FRANK RÜHLI/PLOS ONE

The study investigated the 18th Dynasty mummies of the royal architect Kha and his wife Merit, a couple who were believed to have undergone a short and poor mummification -- if no mummification at all -- despite their relative wealth at death.

Indeed, their internal organs were not removed and placed in canopic jars, as generally occurs in classical royal 18th Dynasty artificial mummification.

Surprisingly, the researchers discovered that all internal organs – brain, thoracic and abdominal organs, eyeballs as well as ocular muscles and nerves -- were in excellent state of preservation after some 3,500 years.

"Both individuals underwent a relatively high quality of mummification, fundamentally contradicting previous understanding," Frank Rühli, Stephen Buckley, Joann Fletcher, Raffaella Bianucci, Michael Habicht, Eleni Vassilika and colleagues wrote in the journal PLOS ONE.

"Elucidated ‘recipes,’ whose components had anti-bacterial and anti-insecticidal properties, were used to treat their bodies," the researchers added.

Discovered by the Italian Egyptologist Ernesto Schiaparelli in 1906 on the cliffs surrounding the ancient village of Deir el Medina, the tomb of Kha and Merit is the most intact non-royal tomb from the New Kingdom.

Two large wooden sarcophagi containing the mummies of the architect and his wife were recovered along with over 500 hundred items, which included food, five nested coffins, full sets of linen clothing, monogrammed underwear and two of the earliest known examples of the Book of the Dead.

The mummies and almost all their belongings are now kept at the Egyptian Museum in Turin, Italy.

Kha was the chief architect of three 18th Dynasty Kings: Amenhotep II (1424–1398 BC), Thutmose IV (1398–1388 BC) and Amenhotep III (1388–1348 BC). He died of unknown causes in his fifties to sixties, under the reign of Amenhotep III, Tutankhamun's grandfather.

Merit died unexpectedly at about 25 to 35 years old, long before her husband. Her own coffin was not finished, and so she was buried in Kha’s anthropomorphic coffin. Since she was much shorter than her husband, some of Kha’s monogrammed linen fabric was used to pad out the space and accomodate her corpse inside the large coffin.

The researchers used new generation X-ray imaging and chemical microanalyses to better understand the type of mummification used to embalm the couple.

Besides the presence of the internal organs, X-rays revealed that both mummies were richly decorated with jewellery, with Kha wearing funerary amulets. Analysis on tiny samples from both individuals' outer wrappings shed light on the mummification process.

They were mummified using a natron salt solution, as were the royals in the 18th Dynasty, but unlike the wealthier royals, their internal organs were not removed,” Stephen Buckley, an archaeological chemist at the University of York in England, told Discovery News.

According to Buckley, the salt solution would have reduced the need for evisceration, but the end result, though reasonable, shows why removal of the internal organs, followed by packing the body cavities, was preferable.

There is evidence that Kha's mummy may have been inflated by gases resulting from some bodily decay, before deflating as desiccation took place post-natron bath,” Buckley said.

He noted that Merit's mummy has disarticulated bones within the wrappings, which may be due to some, if limited, putrefaction of the internal organs left in place.

Nevertheless, the presence of shrunken internal organs and relatively well-preserved bodies suggests that significant efforts were made to embalm Kha and Merit.

Kha’s external wrappings showed the presence of animal fat/plant oil mixed with a small amount of balsam, a plant gum and a coniferous resin.

The balsam and the coniferous resin, possibly cedar resin, provided anti-bacterial and anti-insecticidal properties.

Merit’s embalming “recipe” was notably different from Kha’s. It consisted mainly of an unusual fish oil, mixed with a concoction made of balsam/aromatic plant extract, plant gum, conifer resin and beeswax.

Further chemical analysis of a linen fragment from Merit’s red linen shroud revealed a recipe in which the same highly unusual oil was mixed with a small amount of conifer resin, beeswax, and Pistacia resin.

The resin, and possibly the balsam, would have had to have been imported from the northeastern Mediterranean.

Such findings don’t support previous claims that the two were poorly mummified,” Egyptologist Joann Fletcher, professor at the University of York, said.

ndeed, the embalming agents were remarkably similar to those used by royal mummies of the 18th Dynasty around the time of Amenhotep III.

The findings tell us that the lower-level elite, such as Kha and Merit, received a reasonable degree of care. Significant effort was clearly involved in their mummification, even if it did not produce the same high level of bodily preservation as the higher elite and royals at this time,” Fletcher told Discovery News.

The study is a direct result of long-term research on New Kingdom mummification, which ultimately resulted in mummifying a human body donor in 2011.

Generally speaking, this research confirms my own belief that there is no typical mummification, but a lot of variations are present. We still only know about the tip of the iceberg,” Frank Rühli, Head of the Center for Evolutionary Medicine at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, told Discovery News.